Myanmar’s mesmerising southeast -3
If you haven’t taken the train in Myanmar, you haven’t actually been there. Despite the myriad complaints for being slow, incompetent, late, poor in service quality and unpredictable bumpy rides, it’s the trains that speak of a uniquely diverse nation, unwraps a country blessed by Mother Nature while enabling one to feel its pulse.
Introduced by the British in 1877 the now Myanmar railway is a living relic of the country’s colonial past. No, one won’t get to travel in vintage locomotives but instead will have to run along the hundreds of kilometres rail track built by the colonial rulers.
Compared to bus trips on the same routes, taking the train means extra travel time, but it’s worth it. Local cuisines to brewery; mountains, rivers to jungles; culturally diverse people to backpackers from across the globe; sleepy tiny train stations to junctions – they all have a story to tell. Their stories are to be seen and observed. You can’t hear them.
In brief, the socio-cultural, natural and economical reality of Myanmar is reflected in its oft-maligned train service. The couple of hours train journey from Yangon’s central station dropped me at the doorsteps of Bago – an unimpressive provincial town divided by a river. It’s not for the town but for its surroundings why I have landed here – to explore its archaeological zone.
Archaeological zones in this country almost come in the shape of a package consisting pagodas, monasteries, shrines, palaces and massive Buddha statues. More fascinating are the background tales of these zones, born out of myths, legends and dreams. Likewise, Bago has its own story, too.
Bago was once covered by sea water. The only piece of land above sea level around Bago was the hill of the Hintha Gon Paya located at some 500 meters east of the town’s landmark Shwemawdaw Pagoda. It’s this hill where the Buddha is believed to have made a stopover and made a prediction. Buddha prophesied the spot would one day become the capital of a prosperous kingdom.
Steadily, the water began to recede and some 1500 years later two Mon princes decided to setup a town here and after centuries of bloodied-conflicts the Mon kingdom shifted its capital to Bago in 1369. The foretelling became a reality. Today Hintha Gon Paya has a tiered shrine built by a hermit monk in the early 20’s. Climb to the top with this writer to view a pagoda-stippled surrounding. The view is different from that of Bagan and Mrauk U
In Bago it’s not numbers but the size that matters. Its landmark Shwemawdaw Pagoda’s extended spire is 114 meters long – taller than even the Shwedagon in Yangon. It has four staircases from four sides leading to the top. Both Shwemawdaw and Hintha Gon Paya are major sites for festivals and Nat ceremonies. However, it’s the Kanbawzathadi Palace, a few hundred meters south of Shwemawdaw which has recorded Bago’s history in its own way.
Little of the 400 plus years old palace remains. The dilapidated throne halls are photogenic and a perfect location for shooting historic/horror films. In less than 50 years of its existence the palace was looted and razed by Rakhaine troops. Moreover, nearly for four centuries it remained in that condition until some light renovation work was undertaken in the 1990’s. Inside a small museum contains the jagged remains of the palace’s original teakwood columns.
What separates Bago from other heritage places is the massive reclining Buddha at Shwethalyaung paya. Located some 2 kilometre west of the town, the 55 metre long statue shows a dreamy-eyed Buddha resting his head on an ornate pillow on the eve of his enlightenment.
Like others i took off my shoes, climbed the 20-some steps and stood in front of it. Devotees kept prostrating and praying. A wrinkle-faced old woman wept in silence; a toddler with the red NLD flag ran about the open ground. A soldier stepped in barefoot to offer his prayers. And then a sudden eerie but a revered feeling for the Buddha overwhelmed me.
In Myanmar, it’s not the forgotten glory of past kingdoms, nor the unsurpassed popularity of Aung San suu kyi , or even its fearsome military junta that repeatedly stands in your way , but what stands is the ubiquitous existence of the Buddha
The ‘invisible force’ that rules over the country is his, and none other. Kingdoms and dictators have come and gone; the country’s rulers have instilled fear in the public mind and had branded the nation as a pariah state until very recently. But that one imperishable sacred authority seems to have tolerated the burden of decades of injustice and misrule with the mighty force of hope.
Myanmar’s nascent tourist industry, too, cannot be separated from the blessings of Buddha himself. Its history, archaeology to culture; its dreams, desires to sorrows all somehow begins and ends with the Buddha being around them.
Now frankly speaking, the pagoda boredom has overtaken this traveller. He needs a renewal and he seeks at a place called Hpa-An – the capital of Karen state. Leave out the sliding Thanlyin River, a couple of bustling markets and the Shweyinhmyaw paya and the town Hpa-An has little to offer. The town’s location makes it a perfect place for setting up your base camp for exploring a series of fascinating mountains and caves.
The bus dropped me at the station in the wee hours of a Thursday. It was located some five kilometres from the city centre. A bike carried me through Hpa-An’s empty roads and stopped right in front of the doorsteps of the Soe Brothers Guest house - the backpackers’ number one choice of stay.
Check-in any time during the tourist season and the Europeans have invaded it. British, German, French, Italians to Spanish besides the unidentified have turned the 3 storey guesthouse into a mini European melting pot. Every inch of the $4 sleeping-mat dorm was occupied but, however, the sudden departure of an Australian appeared a blessing in disguise. The $12 room felt like paradise. I looked out of the balcony’s window. A wrinkled-chain of Limestone Mountains surrounded the town and its river. A couple of straight aligned small domes on the north towards the direction of the market showed a mosque.
A few locals were beginning their day lazily and exactly then, a long column of young monks clad in maroon robes and empty bowls in their hands marched in and stopped at the market entrance. The column got divided in three and disappeared in three directions. Coming from the nearby monastery they were to collect alms, food and money. They are usually respected by all and there is never a dearth of provisions for Buddha’s soldiers.
What add an extra value to Myanmar’s diverse culture are its mosques. For foreign travellers, it’s only the easy-access-to-mosque that’s missing. Like Bago this town, too, is also home to a Muslim minority. Nevertheless, the paints used in mosques spread out across Myanmar are visibly influenced by the local culture. Like pagoda-tops and stupas, the mosque-domes too, are painted in gold. The floors of almost all mosques are covered with bright coloured carpets. The ornate ceilings and walls are cleaned almost daily. Signs of dirt and poverty have been diligently wiped-out.
Saying from experience, praying is free of annoyance in Myanmar. A stranger barely draws any attention. Place your shoes anywhere, wash yourself, say your prayers in peace and then leave. The fellows Muslims have little time to bother about the length of your trousers, beard or cap. Moreover, they won’t annoy you by giving unsolicited tips on how to pray. Surprisingly, you can store your shoes anywhere inside or outside the mosques. We are still a far cry from ensuring the safety of shoes in our mosques.